Northern Michigan plays host to five major casinos in the Lower Peninsula - in Leelanau County, Traverse City, Petoskey, Manistee and Mt. Pleasant. Each destination offers complete mini-vacations that you can enjoy without having to leave the property. Each casino/resort offers gourmet meals, luxe accommodations, live entertainment, flashing lights, and, of course, that ever-evasive but always compelling challenge - the chance to become a high roller.
Expansion is the name of the game at each casino. The following is a progress report on the state of gaming -- one of the regions biggest draws for tourism.
GRAND TRAVERSE GAMING
The Traverse City area has indulged in casino gaming since 1984, when the Leelanau Sands Casino opened their doors, followed over 10 years later by the Turtle Creek Casino in 1996. In 2003, the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa - yep, that gleaming tower that rises high above the cherry orchards in Acme - was purchased by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. And it wasnt long before all three destinations - the two casinos and the resort - were linked together.
For a truly upscale experience, those looking to escape might want to plan a stay at the main Resort, with its newly renovated guest rooms, a combination of modern, Northwoods, and Native American design elements. Many of the more impressive rooms reside in The Tower, which has spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, golf courses, the distant slopes of Sugar Loaf, and East Grand Traverse Bay. The Resort allows Vegas-wannabe guests to explore both casinos from a fairly central location. Once your gaming experience is done for the day (or night), guests can return to the Resorts indoor pools, tennis courts, beach club, golf courses (designed by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player), dining, coffeeshop, and bar facilities, and the cherry-themed Spa Grand Traverse, which offers luxurious treatments and - of course - cherry-scented spa products. The lobby is being renovated to make the facility even more inviting, and the reasonable prices for all of this luxury may surprise you - room rates begin at around $85 (varies by season) - and will leave you with more than enough in your pockets to gamble with.
Our renovations are being done to help the Resort excel in an increasingly competitive local, regional, and national resort environment, explains Michael Michaud, Grand Traverse Resorts Marketing Director. Continuous improvement is a must in the resort business. When the lobby renovation is complete, in many ways the Resort will be like new, and we invite the local community and destination guests both to rediscover the Resort.
Michaud, a 16-year gaming industry veteran, agrees that Indian gaming is becoming more of a tourist function in the local area, much as poker tournaments are increasing in visibility on television and the internet.
Which casino to take those hard-saved dollars to? Well, Leelanau Sands Casino might seem at first to be a far-flung destination, located 20 miles north of Traverse City in the quaintly-named Peshawbestown, but its worth the winding, scenic drive that runs just past the charming town of Suttons Bay. Gulls and fluttering leaves criss-cross your path as you drive along the bayshore past both small cottages and extravagant vacation homes - and once you arrive, a courtesy shuttle pops you in quickly from the rustic parking lot. Youll be deposited right in front of a bank of slot machines, including plenty of the new digital slots.
Open year-round, Leelanau Sands offers Blackjack, Three Card Poker, Let It Ride, Roulette, Craps, and Texas Holdem Poker, for which they frequently hold big-time tournaments - your chance to win the real big bucks.
In between gaming, you can grab a drink or snack at the Sand Dollar Bar, the Double Eagle Grill, or the stylish Elements Lounge - and then youll be refreshed enough to take on Bingo in the all-new 280-seat Bingo Hall.
Also, the Leelanau Sands Showroom offers concerts and other Vegas-style special events that range from the likes of Three Dog Night (April 29th) and Tanya Tucker (May 6th) to the tryouts for CBS-TVs Rock Star reality show.
Too tired to make the drive back to the Grand Traverse Resort? No problem - just reserve a spot at Leelanau Sands The Lodge, with 51 guest rooms prettily located in the woods - regular room rates start at just $79 (varies by season.)
Four miles east of Traverse City, Turtle Creek Casino in Williamsburg offers a huge bounty of slot machines - over 1,200 - with everything from penny slots to $100 machines. Open 24 hours a day year-round, Turtle Creek offers many of the same gaming options as Leelanau Sands. Dining options include the casual Creekside Cafe, with sandwiches and pizza - or you can indulge your taste buds with the Misheekeh Restaurants inspired cuisine, which includes center cut boneless pork chops, BBQ ribs, and a variety of steaks.
Turtle Creek gamblers will also find that theyre conveniently close to the Grand Traverse Resort, which offers a shuttle service to and from the casino so you dont have to drive back to your room in the newly-renovated Resort.
In terms of size and location, the Soaring Eagle Casino is perhaps the most startling of all the casinos listed here. Located in rural Mt. Pleasant, its a visual shock to be cruising past farmland and rows of middle-class houses and suddenly see the strikingly-designed casino, with its brightly-lit marquee sign, 70-foot fountain pond, and archway entrance flanked by two giant eagles.
Its also the biggest casino to date in Michigan, with the highest stakes bingo in the state and over 4,300 slots, including oddities such as Star Wars penny slots and plenty of other unusual slot distractions. Blackjack is one of the most popular games at Soaring Eagle, with 38 blackjack tables and limits up to $1,000. Soaring Eagle also offers craps, roulette, and an 18-table poker room that features Texas Holdem, Omaha, 7 Card Stud, Pineapple, and dealers choice games until 4 a.m.
Where the casino amenties leave off, the resort comes in. Its surprising how long it actually takes to walk all the way from one end of Soaring Eagle to the other; and its not an unpleasant walk, lined with all manner of artwork, a water wall, plush carpeting, plants, fireplaces, various small stores and other distractions such as video game rooms and snack bars, and friendly casino staff.
Over 500 guest rooms are decorated with attention to detail - terra cotta terrazzo flooring, custom wall coverings, cherry woodwork that was hand-carved in New Mexico - it all makes for a luxurious experience, giving the illusion that you have traveled to a different state.
Some of the rooms have fireplaces, in-room spas, and wet bars. Rates (which vary with season), begin at around $140, providing a double room that feels like much more expensive lodgings. Guests can also take advantage of the very pretty Soaring Eagle Spa, which offers all sorts of treatments, and theres also an exotic 2,400 square foot free-form pool.
Its a great property, a beautiful place, and weve installed a lot of great Native American art, which really adds to the atmosphere. And of course well be glad to see guests from the Petoskey and Traverse City areas, William Masterson enthuses. As Executive Director of Marketing, Sales and Entertainment, Masterson oversees many of the special events at the resort, including the concerts series that has been bringing in a surprising range of live acts to Northern Michigan.
The past year has seen performances from indie-rock acts The Killers, Louis XIV, Rob Thomas, and Anna Nalick - great news for those Up North residents who have been accustomed to having to travel all the way to Detroit to see this caliber of music - and the upcoming spring schedule includes shows by Tom Jones, The Knack, and Kenny Rogers. Hopefully the summer will bring more rock hits to the Soaring Eagle stage.
There are five dining options at Soaring Eagle, beginning with the Soaring Eagle Deli, which is open 24 hours a day. The Little Eagle Cafe, also open 24 hours, offers full-service snacks such as nachos and burgers. A full-service buffet offers a spectacular range of food for every meal - for under $20, you can eat until you cant eat any more. The Water Lily Restaurant offers American Regional cuisine, while the Siniikaung Steakhouse features an aged prime beef program for the discerning diner, who can compliment their meal with an extensive list of wines, single malt scotches, bourbons, and tequilas, in a wood-heavy atmosphere decorated with wrought iron and stone carvings. The Water Lily Lounge is the perfect place for a relaxing drink after dinner, either inside by candlelight or, weather permitting, outdoors on their patio with views of the water fountain and courtyard. And, if youre just too busy running around gambling to sit down and dine, just find the Prime Rib cart, where you can grab a Prime Rib sandwich sliced fresh to order.
VICTORIES IN PETOSKEY
Petoskeys Victories Casino was constructed out of a former bowling alley and now offers a comfortably renovated building loaded with 1,100 slots, including the newest progressive Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy slots. Also on hand are video poker machines, a range of table games including blackjack, Let It Ride, craps, and roulette, and Victories new Bakinaage Players Club, where frequent gamblers can win cash back, discounts, and more.
Victories also hosts the Victories Hotel (formerly Petoskeys Holiday Inn), a beautifully decorated facility done up in Earth tones, dark woods, and even Petoskey stones, which are embedded into the front desk. The hotel is highlighted with gorgeous Native American artwork, a fireplace and plenty of relaxing seating, and features over 100 guest rooms and 10 suites, half of which overlook the town and Little Traverse Bay. Prices for Victories Hotel begin at around $79, higher during tourist season.
Petoskeys Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians owns both properties; the hotel was renovated by the Band in 2003.
When we acquired the hotel, it was pretty much nothing more than a dilapidated Holiday Inn, Victories General Manager Barry Milligan points out. We spent a great deal of money refurbishing it to AAA status with four-star level amenities. Theres the Wiigwaas Deli in the hotel, a swimming pool, an exercise room, and the very nice Niibiish Lounge that were doing some improvements to - were in the process of putting in wireless internet, and of course the lounge will be open to both travelers staying at the hotel and in-town folks. Wed love to see the locals come on in to get a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and hop online.
All are a drop in the bucket compared to the improvements that Victories will soon be making on their Petoskey properties. One of the biggest stories in town - and one of the greatest sources of rumors regarding just what shape it will take - is the construction of the new Victories Casino and Resort.
The new casino/resort is being designed by Leo A. Daly Architects of Omaha, Nebraska, and is being built behind Wal-Mart and Home Depot on a large plot of land that the Odawa tribe purchased for that express reason. Its set to bring both small-town controversy and a huge amount of welcome gambling/resort income to the region. If you like the current Victories Casino - and plenty of people do - then youll be blown away by what the new Victories Casino and Resort will offer.
The main casino facility is slated to be completed by June, 2007, with two hotel towers to be added within 10 years or so. Well be doubling the size of our current casino, which is 26,000 square feet, to 50,000 feet in the new casino, Milligan confirms, we dont have poker games now, but well certainly be having them in the new place, including tournament poker - well have six poker tables, plus around 30 additional table games. And, of course, there will be slots - were going to install around 1,500 slot machines.
But the games are just scratching the surface. Milligan, who took over as general manager at Victories in November of last year, brings 24 years of casino experience to the table, having started at Harrahs in Nevada and having brought his expertise to casinos in a half-dozen other states.
Victories was really designed as a temporary facility for the Little Traverse Band, Milligan explains. Its been here six years now, and was opened the fastest that I think a casino has ever been opened - six weeks.
The lanes from the bowling alley are still underneath the casino flooring, he continues, in theory, you could pull up the floor and bowl!
Bowling will be the last thing on guests minds when they get an eyeful of the new Victories once it begins operations. In addition to the games, there will be plenty of whats called casino add-ons to keep guests happy and on the property as long as possible. For those who like good entertainment, there will not one, but several choices. The first will be a concert hall-slash-special events room that will seat 1,000 people for concerts and around 500 for table events such as conventions and meetings - the casino hopes to bring in big-name acts such as what are being booked at Soaring Eagle.
A high-end nightclub - unlike anything Northern Michigan has seen - is one of the things that will make this casino really stand out, especially in the more conservative Petoskey area. Offering a true Las Vegas nightclub feel, it will likely remain open until 4 a.m. A huge 300-person capacity dance floor will be flooded with lights, big screen TVs, and A/V screens, and will be manned by, as Milligan puts it, real DJs in a DJ booth, not just those guys that spin discs and call themselves DJs.
Flare bartenders - like the ones seen in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail - will put on another sort of show, spinning and flipping bottles as theyre making drinks. The dance floor will be lowered and filmed by cameras that will feed to the A/V screens, and a railing will surround the whole scene, behind which will reside a row of deep booths that will each hold six to ten people. Each one of these booths (brace yourselves for this eyepopping feature) will have its own personal fire pit and plasma TV. A small stage will host live performances. And when the nightclub isnt in full nightclub mode, it will double as a sports bar. Milligan agrees that it will indeed be very, very different for this area.
Now all of that alone might be enough, but Victories isnt stopping there - theyre going all in. In addition to the concert hall and nightclub, there will also be a high-end gourmet steak house restaurant, complete with a piano bar lounge, a glass-walled walk-up wine rack in the middle of the room, and another glass wall to the outside, to watch those famed Petoskey sunsets. A large rotunda will greet guests as they enter, where they can stroll down a long promenade graced with seats that will lead to the casinos giant buffet.
For those looking for a little caffeine or a more casual hangout, a coffee bar/cafe - which may also have late-night hours - will be installed, another place where the casino might feature music, most likely acoustic performers. On the casino floor itself, Victories will be borrowing an idea from the Green Valley Ranch Casino in Las Vegas - a raised, glass-walled circle-shaped bar that will be the focal point of the casino floor and will allow patrons to watch the gambling action while enjoying their beverages. And later, Victories plans to add a full Spa facility, too.
Its all part of an ambitious project that Milligan believes will greatly raise the appeal of Victories as a whole. We do already have a facility that attracts a good level of business, Milligan says, and we definitely appreciate our current guests. But were not really hitting all of the demographics. We dont do that well yet with the Harbor Springs and Bay Harbor people - wed like to do a better job reaching out to them, and it would be nice to get some of the younger people in, too.
But, lest local folks fear that the new casino will be a little TOO Las Vegas - as in, too garish and, well, dare we say tacky, Milligan has reassuring words. This is not going to be a burlesque-looking facility, not at all, he confirms, were going for a very upscale, Northwoods feel. What were thinking right now is that the overall scheme will be a lot of dark reds and golds, vivid but classy colors with some exciting enhancements. Were really doing this right - its really going to be special.
And the fate of the old Victories Casino?
Well, we dont really know, Milligan says, thats in the tribes hands. It will not be a casino facility - the tribe is only allowed one casino - so were not sure what to do with it yet. The theory is that well turn out the lights on this one when we turn the lights at the new one on.
And what a day that will be for Petoskey - and for everyone looking to experience a little more Las Vegas right here in Northern Michigan.
For more info on the casinos listed in this article: Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos: www.casino2win.com or 1-800-236-1577
Mt. Pleasants Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort: www.soaringeaglecasino.com or 1-888-7EAGLE7
Petoskeys Victories Casino and Hotel:
www.victories-casino.com or 1-877-4-GAMING